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Where to L.A? A Brief Inquiry Into Our Museums' Community

Fallen Fruit - Street Bananas.jpg
Fallen Fruit's Street Bananas.

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center, an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

I'm going to make a prediction. The next few years will be instrumental in how we as Angelenos relate to and understand art in our city. The debates and conversations concerning the health and future of our art institutions have begun to reach a critical mass. Personally, the discussion I've had over the past few weeks about the "responsibilities" that local museums have to our community is mind-blowing given the fact that the art world has always been reticent to talk about communities or take museums to task for anything. Since I'm the Curator in Residence at 18th Street Arts Center this year, maybe that is a good place to start.

Projects like ArtBound demonstrate that there are more artists and different kinds of art making happening around us than we probably realized. Here we see projects where community and social infrastructures (our environment, our architecture, our neighborhoods) are integral parts of not only art making, but are central axis points in the civic reimagining it provokes. From artists working within the Occupy movement to community-specific collaborations, artists are working in disciplines and with communities that we could not have foreseen a few decades ago. The result of which is an expanding measure of art that is provocatively democratic and increasingly popular. From the Los Angeles Urban Rangers' collective safaris through our urban landscape, to Fallen Fruit's mapping of our agricultural history - from Suzanne Lacy's collaborations with women's rights advocacy groups to LA Poverty Department's performances on homelessness issues, the list of examples is quiet long and growing.

This form of art, although not new by any means, is being referred to more and more as Social Practice. Los Angeles has a great tradition of this kind of practice and today examples of it are so numerous in our vast city that leaving them out of a central and serious conversation on contemporary art - given the political moment we live in - seems unthinkable. Yet, that is exactly what's happening and it's unfortunate because I think there's something in these art practices that museums can learn from.

Fallen Fruit's Public Fruit Jam.
Fallen Fruit's Public Fruit Jam.

Traditionally, our form of engaging museums - sites we should consider "civic spaces" after all - is generally done via a well-established curatorial paradigm. What you'll generally get is a mix of well-researched, academically driven shows and high profile, crowd inducing spectacles (the latter generally helping to fund the former). Most community or pedagogically driven projects have either been assigned to the educational staff or handed over to independent art spaces/collectives to resolve. For the most part, that's how it has worked. Educational initiatives are low on the conceptual hierarchy within museum programming, almost always working in support of curatorial initiatives and hardly ever the other way around.

The nature of curatorial work is quite complex and can't be attended to properly in this forum. But the conversation of what comprises this kind of artistic practice (and let's face it, in many ways curation is an artistic practice1) is particularly relevant given the protests and debates that have resulted from the recent firing of MoCA's head curator - debates centered on the role and responsibility of museums.2 This is a critical moment in the LA art world, but let's not pretend that things were fine a few months ago.

The question about how major LA art institutions can support a variety of local art practices - or if they even want to - is difficult to fathom given the long-standing disconnect LA museums have historically had with their constituency. To give you an example, until the very recent Pacific Standard Time exhibitions of 2011, the entire history of local Latino solo shows curated by Los Angeles museums could be counted on three fingers.3 If that number doesn't floor you, consider that the Queens Museum under the directorship of Tom Finkelpearl, currently has as many community organizers on staff as curators and has been dedicated to dealing with the issues of immigration, memory and social justice programming directed unambiguously to the large immigrant community that makes up Queens and Corona Plaza. When was the last time we heard of a major LA art institution (working in a city where more than half of its inhabitants speak Spanish) doing anything remotely similar?

Suzanne Lacy.
Suzanne Lacy.

Perhaps the problem is that we have not asked our local museums to consider their civic role within the context of a truly global city like Los Angeles? Perhaps we think that given the large percentage of private funds museums have to raise gives them license to operate as "private" institutions? Do we mistakenly think that traditional curatorial work and programming is ok as it is? Does it truly represent artists and art making in this city? Are we concerned about the fact that most museum directors in LA come from the east coast or elsewhere and make no credible effort to get to know their community? The truth is that their definition of community is different than the one I'm referring to here. Curators typically curate for other curators, whether they want to admit it or not. Museum directors are more concerned with raising funds, and admittedly, packing in visitors is one way to do that. But if we believe that the museum-going public should be as varied as the city in which they operate, and reflect an equally varied number of artistic practices, then we must ask for more.

Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration.
Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration.

We must ask for some accountability and leadership. As mentioned above, there have recently been efforts on the part of museum programmers to address the growing presence of Social Practices within the practical and theoretical fields. But handing over the keys to a well-established art collective to "curate" the programming for the year, like what recently happened at one local museum, won't cut it. Understandably, the book on how a museum or a curator deals with these still-emerging practices in the U.S. has not been written. But if the art world cares to look beyond its most immediate and well-worn curatorial examples (read echo chamber) then we might find successful models of how museums, directors and curators are finding ways to make this work. They can engage communities and artists in ways that reflect the methodologies found within the practice while addressing our museums' long-standing inattentiveness to whom makes up their demographic.

What I'm suggesting is that if we're concerned about the responsibility and the civic role of museums, then we should begin by looking at their programming - its past, present and future. Who is it for? Who have they left out? Art is a big word and the art world is a big place. Can we do a better job of finding a place for art practices that want to ask those kinds of questions?

Queens Museum - Corona Plaza Closing, 2008.
Queens Museum - Corona Plaza Closing, 2008.

Bill Kelley, Jr. is 18th Street Arts Center's first Curator in Residence. This new annual award for a California curator is a yearlong residency designed to support curatorial research and to promote the development of critical discourse in contemporary art. Kelley is an independent curator, theorist and educator based in Los Angeles who is particularly interested in Social Practice (a term that is currently being widely used to define trans-disciplinary art practices that have direct community involvement and social activism at their core, with an emphasis on investigating artists' methods for public engagement). During his residency, Kelley will explore platforms for Social Practice from artist-run spaces to museums, among other related topics including pedagogical theories within art and the theoretical foundations of Social Practice in Latin America. He offers us these thoughts and questions as he begins his research.

Notes:

1 From Marcel Broodthaers' landmark 1968 project Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles to more recent examples like Jens Hoffman's and Maruizio Cattalan's ironic 6th Caribbean Biennial, there are many more examples one could cite to begin discussing how and why this blurring of lines is an already established working paradigm.

2 Salmon, Felix. 2012. "Eli Broad and the Gagosian consensus." Reuters Analysis & Opinion. (July 12, 2012), http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/07/13/eli-broad-and-the-gagosian-consensus. Also see Christopher Knight. 2012. "Seeing L.A.'s MOCA as a company - therein lies the rub." Los Angeles Times' Culture Monster (July 8, 2012). http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-moca-notebook-20120709,0,5487794.story

3 Los Four (LACMA, 1973), Gronk (MOCA, 1985), and Carlos Almaraz (LACMA 1992). This exact number has not been easily confirmed, and there is the possibility I could be slightly off here (but not by much). Thanks to Pilar Tompkins Rivas for lending me resource material.

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